Coming from Diamond Harbour just outside Christchurch, it seems a luxury for my partner and I to take a road trip so close to home. But at over 1,000 square kilometres, there’s plenty to see and do on Banks Peninsula with its three extinct volcanoes and rich forest and bird life.
Our warm glow is kindled at our first overnight stop on the outskirts of Christchurch. The Whare is set in the expanse of the Canterbury Plains between Halswell and Tai Tapu. It’s known as a glamping site but there’s far more glamour than camping here. There are many details to admire, including a toasty fireplace, a peaceful garden and big skyscapes with lots of birds. It’s a special place suited to romance if that’s your thing; an entry from the visitor’s book tells us a couple even got engaged here.
Crisp air greets us the following morning as we get underway early for an enchanting drive to Little River. Nestled in a picturesque valley, the Little River Gallery beckons. We browse through exhibits and the treasure trove of contemporary New Zealand art and crafts before enjoying a coffee and a slice of the Little River Café’s legendary homemade orange cake.
The love of creativity and local craftsmanship permeates this artsy settlement, leaving us feeling inspired and connected.
Onwards to the romantic solitude of Tumbledown and Magnet Bays, both on the southern side of Banks Peninsula. Tumbledown Bay is a sleepy, sandy bay, while Magnet Bay is coveted by experienced surfers in summer for its long left-hand surf break producing a ‘fat but wally wave’, according to Surf Seeker NZ. We venture almost to the edge of the hills at the mouth of Akaroa Harbour before heading down into Wainui and around the coast to Akaroa. Without stopping, it’s only 90 minutes to Akaroa, but it’s taken us almost a full day to get here. It’s a place that encourages you to slow down and enjoy the ride.
Akaroa exudes an air of Gallic chic, with its charming colonial architecture, waterfront cafés, and French street names. It is the only successful French settlement in New Zealand and founded in an attempt by the French to claim and colonise the whole of the South Island.
We rest our heads for the night at Newton Heights Bed and Breakfast. There’s something to be said for the traditional bed and breakfast arrangement: sharing kai and stories with local hosts. Connections are made, the handshakes and hugs are warm as we depart.
The next day we join a tour with Marie Haley of The Seventh Generation Tours. Marie is the great, great, great-granddaughter of Étienne François LeLievre, one of the first French settlers to arrive in Akaroa. She shares with us the stories of Māori and French history in Banks Peninsula. Akaroa is home to five of the most important historic sites in New Zealand, including Ōnuku, where Te Tiriti o Waitangi was first signed in the South Island.
As a seventh-generation local, Marie also weaves her family history into the narrative, deepening our understanding of New Zealand’s history.
“I love to imagine how Akaroa looked through my ancestors’ eyes: wild, remote and crammed with birds and birdsong... it would have been a South Pacific paradise,” Marie says.
After bidding adieu to Marie, we weave our way up the hillside to Hinewai Reserve. This ecological restoration project, started in 1987, occupies 1,570 hectares of native bush. It’s a living example of how a native forest can be successfully restored with little human input. The gorse, a hated weed for farmers, is now tolerated at Hinewai, as it serves as a canopy for the fledgling natives that can outgrow the gorse in due course. In just one generation it’s been revived from cleared pasture to a rich, quiet forest.
With few interpretation panels or visitor centres on Banks Peninsula, Marie’s guided tour to lesser-known spots like Goughs Bay and Otanerito Bay, leaves us with a new appreciation for the area, both past and present. There’s an uplifting joie de vivre to this place, with its mix of shimmering waters, hidden stories and expansive vistas.
Continuing to explore the Akaroa township, we walk up the hill to The Giant’s House, otherwise known as the happiest garden on earth. To be honest, we were expecting something on the garish side when we arrived to a plethora of signs the colour of bubble-gum. How wrong we were! Once inside, every piece of art is so lovingly crafted that you can’t help feeling held by the artist, Josie Martin, who has entwined her unique garden mosaic art around the traditional 1880 house that is her home.
With a permanent population of just 750, Akaroa could likely take out an award for the most restaurants and cafés per head of population. We enjoy long, lingering dinners at Ma Maison and HarBar, and The Common is a treat of a café, with owners having recently opened a gallery and cake shop next door. All of them are delightful.
There’s still more to experience so we promise ourselves we’ll be back. Locals talk highly of the Akaroa’s Eastern Bays Scenic Mail Run that takes tourists 120 kilometres in and out of ten bays from sea level to the crater rim delivering mail. Then there’s the Akaroa dolphins trip and the chance to see penguins with Pōhatu Penguins – a family-run venture protecting korarā white-flippered penguins. There’s a biennial French Festival in October, and an Akaroa Music Festival held in January each year.
Our story cup is full and the memory bank is brimming. We’ve learnt more about Akaroa in the last three days than we have in years of living just a stone’s throw away.
Explore more from AA Directions magazine while you're here:
- Survival story: a freak kite surfing accident
- Wheel Love: the cutest 1956 Nash Metropolitan
- AA research on older drivers